Even when Rock Bridge found itself in trouble early Monday night against Kirksville, senior first baseman Erik Darkow stayed calm.
Trailing 1-0 with one on and nobody out in the second inning, and with starting pitcher Nate Herndon battling control problems, Darkow lunged to his left to grab a sharp line drive off the bat of Kirksville catcher Travis Eagen and calmly stepped on the bag to complete the double play. One batter later, the Bruins were out of the inning, and went on to win 10-5. Darkow scored three times, going 3-for-4 on the evening.
The Bruins have come to expect such steady, intelligent play from their 6-foot-6 first baseman and No. 1 starting pitcher. Staying calm under pressure is a skill Darkow has refined over years of playing basketball and baseball in tense situations.
“He’s an intelligent athlete,” Bruins coach Justin Towe said. “He could play any sport he chooses to. He has a good feel of whatever game it is he’s playing. Erik is a good baseball player, and a good basketball player as well.
“He’s one of those athletes who just gets it.”
Towe said that Darkow’s laid back demeanor has a profound effect on his team, especially when he’s on the mound. As the ace of the Rock Bridge staff, Darkow usually faces the better teams on the schedule. Towe said that Darkow’s attitude on the mound during tense situations helps put his teammate’s minds at ease.
“Whether we’re five up or five down, he’s the same person,” Towe said. “Not all kids are like him, and when the pressure’s on, they naturally press. Erik has a calming effect on the team. He’s ‘Steady Eddie,’ always calm.”
Senior outfielder Jack Campbell, a close friend of Darkow’s, agrees.
“He’s been playing varsity basketball since freshman year,” Campbell said. “He’s been in situations that a lot of these guys haven’t been in. When we see him being calm, it helps us all relax, which is a big part of his success.”
Campbell, who said he has known Darkow since around age six or seven, said that in Little League, their team had an appropriate name for Darkow, who describes himself as “an easy going guy without too many problems.”
“We called him ‘Goofy,’” Campbell said. “He’s the best and happiest baseball player you could ever want to be around.”
“He’s laid back, the nicest guy ever.”
Darkow, true to his nickname, said that he likes to make the game, be it basketball or baseball, as fun as possible, which contributes to his mentality.
“It’s a fun sport,” he said. “I think that you have to be relaxed to be successful. You have to have fun and try to relax. When you’re winning, it’s a lot easier.”
Darkow said that basketball helped him gain a lot of focus and the ability to thrive under pressure.
“Coach (Jim) Scanlan always preaches mental toughness,” he said. “I learned to find the positive in every situation, and how to put people on my back and carry them when I have to. He taught us to fight through adversity.”
As is true with any successful athlete, Darkow doesn’t just have the mental part of the game down. Towe credits his physical abilities for much of his success.
“He was an outfielder when he started out,” Towe said. “We knew he was going to be a pitcher for us, but the time came when he had to play first base. He said,‘Coach, I can do it. I can play first base.’”
As far as his pitching, Towe said that his ace has tremendous movement combined with his size and his release point, making him tough to hit. His skills at first base aren’t bad either.
“He has soft hands for a guy his size,” Towe said. “The guys know that they just have to get it somewhere around the bag and he’s going to go get it.”
As far as the pressure that comes with being the ace of the Rock Bridge staff, Darkow said that the pressure doesn’t get to him any more than it would otherwise.
“It doesn’t get to me,” Darkow said. “I pitched all summer, and with basketball, I’ve been in a lot of pressure games. With basketball and baseball at Rock Bridge, you always have a target on your back. I just take it as a personal challenge and go in with that killer mentality.”
And if he doesn’t have his best stuff on a given day, it doesn’t get him down.
“I like to get out there and focus and compete,” Darkow said. “But if I don’t make my pitch, it’s not a life or death thing.”